Story by | Daniel Lee, Contributing Writer (he/him/his)
Photo by | Tan Shan Min (she/her/hers), Martin Choo (he/him/his)
Excerpt: Within Yale-NUS, events engaging with a whole range of social issues never end, but the turn-outs for these events are usually not high. Does this mean that we don’t care? In this piece, Daniel talks to several students about their perceptions of diversity apathy.
As I walked about campus during Diversity Week this year, there didn’t seem to be a sense of excitement in the air. Aside from the t-shirt and tote event near Agora, I did not notice much else going on.
I initially dismissed this as just my own ignorance. Any Yale-NUS College student can probably attest to the number of events going on in any given week. The ever changing multitude of posters advertising events plaster the lifts. In our online spaces, the flood of Facebook posts clamouring for attention and participation never ends.
It was only upon seeing the above Facebook post by intersectional environmentalist Shikhar Agarwal ‘21, that I started to entertain the idea that maybe Yale-NUS students don’t care about diversity and inclusion. While the realist in me might agree, my hope was that perhaps the events of Diversity Week got diluted by the information overload.
I want to begin by saying that this article is by no means aimed at discrediting the hard work that the Dean of Students’ Office, Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and various student organizations do on campus.
In this article, I explore whether Yale-NUS students really care about diversity, and if not, what the reasons for this apathy might be. Is it because we are too busy? Are we too mentally fatigued? Does our education play a role in engagement?
Low Turnout at Diversity Week
In response to Diversity Week, social activist Ethel Pang ‘22, reflected that in previous years there were more people involved in physical events on campus. However, due to COVID-19 and social distancing, a lot of college events, including Diversity Week, have been “muted.”
In Agarwal’s experience, events, activities and general non-classroom engagements with issues concerning societal minorities has seen a “generally low rate of participation, beyond the self-selecting few,” especially since the founding classes left.
Muhammad Naeem Shehryar ‘23, Student Government Director for Diversity and Inclusion, said that Diversity Week “actually went much better than expected.” However, they also mentioned that there were three or four events with little attendance.
When speaking with Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students, and Cory Owen, Associate Dean of Students, it seemed that Diversity Week this year had better than average turnout. “We actually had more events this year than many of the previous years,” said Dr. Owen. According to her, in-person events across the week had 269 individual attendees with 46 who went to multiple events—meaning there were 222 unique check-ins throughout the week for in-person events.
Whether or not 269 students (approximately 25% of the student body) is enough to be considered apathetic, I leave it to you to decide. However, it seems that some students perceive a drop in engagement, as seen in the Facebook post above. This leads me to question: beyond those seven days, is diversity on the mind of the college’s collective psyche?
Is it due to an information overload or mental fatigue?
Indeed, the barrage of event posters plastered across our physical and online spaces can be overwhelming for some.
While Pang does engage in conversations surrounding diversity outside of school, she hasn’t always done so on campus because the number of events can be “genuinely quite overwhelming.”
“As a student, there’s a lot to juggle,” she added. “You want to improve skill sets, gain knowledge, and make connections, [which creates] a lot of anxiety. It’s more likely to find people who are stressed about not doing enough than the people who are genuinely not doing enough.”
There may also be a sense of fatigue weighing people down, said Shehryar. “Especially upon minorities, who disproportionately bear the burden of diversity and inclusion work.”
Regarding the campus being a busy space, the Dean of Students team also relayed that this is a perpetual Student Affairs discussion, and that a lot of universities struggle with this.
However, there are many others who disagree. The original author of the Facebook post, Agarwal disagreed, “I dont think it’s a problem of people not having enough time, or being fatigued or all these things.”
Shehryar similarly noted that the information overload students experience might actually be a misconception because “there is less happening on this campus than people make it out to be.”
Is it because of our education?
Diversity is a topic that is featured prominently in the college’s curriculum and other events such as Orientation. For example, Class of 2024’s Orientation program included a consent and intercultural diversity and engagement session.
Dr. Stanfield said: “As a core value of the institution, diversity is a topic integrated throughout the Yale-NUS experience.”
However, various students I conversed with pointed out that while our education might give us the foundational knowledge of diversity-related issues, it may not be sufficient in helping students fully engage with them.
Pang said that Yale-NUS students are typically “concerned and aware of what’s going on, on all the key issues of representation and diversity.” However, she noted the possibility of a faculty divide, “especially in majors that do not deal with diversity issues as often.”
As a student engaged in social impact and changemaking, and who involves herself actively in communities, Pang felt that there could be students who are less exposed to diversity issues outside of the Common Curriculum which only addresses them at a “very vague, baseline level.”
Likewise, Agarwal feels that our general student experience “fails to equip or compel students to deconstruct their privilege, but rather ends up entrenching the normative pursuits of joining ‘atas‘ society, either through academia or high-paying jobs and big companies complicit in societal inequality.”
His frustration lies beyond the low attendance of Diversity Week, but rather in the broader apathy towards societal problems that many students here “don’t engage with beyond a superficial or intellectual level.”
Pang highlighted a similar concern, noting that our intellectual discourse is “not enough to push students into taking action.” This action-intention gap is something she wants to work on for herself, especially in cases where she has no personal incentive to do so. She elaborated that advocacy or research isn’t the same as “being on the ground and working with people who are the intended beneficiaries of one’s actions.”
On a related note, Dr. Stanfield has found it “rare that you hear formal sessions around socio-economic diversity” in the sense that the Dean of Students’ Office doesn’t get as many proposals for that topic. To this, he postulated that our diversity programming and discussions could benefit from expanding to include a broader range of topics such as religion, spirituality, and socio-economic status. Conversations seem to be more focused on gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity “as the primary aspects of diversity.”
In response to students’ concern about insufficient education, Dr. Owen said that the team has been considering a more “balanced approach” to diversity. She highlighted the team’s strategic intention to offer a spectrum of passive and active learning opportunities, ranging from art installations to discussion panels. “It’s important for us to offer different modes of engagement, because people engage in different ways.”
Is it because we just don’t care?
Shehryar reflected that, “people care, and want to be engaged with the community.” At the same time, however, they sensed that some students might feel“disillusioned.”
Often when going to community events, Shehryar asked, “What’s the point? What is going to come from this? If people don’t actually see a point they very rightly don’t go, and we can’t fault them for that.”
Shehryar mused that there are some days where they ask themselves “if anyone even gives a f***.”
They also pointed out that several events on campus do not translate to actual change: “People have been calling for more sexual misconduct support for so long and it is only this year that we got survivor support advisors. So is anyone going to go to an event and think that it is going to be something productive? No. And that’s a structural issue,”
While Shehryar empathizes with people who have “valid reasons” not to care due to the “hurt, anger and exhaustion” associated with structural inaction, they believe that being a part of this community means playing “an active part in making it a safe place for everyone.” Shehryar emphasized: “If you don’t want to, that’s fine, that’s on you. But if you do, then you have to engage with it, all of it: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Dr. Owen said that some people are drawn in due to their personal relationship with the topic on hand. However, she also related that in some cases, people only attended events “because their friend was organizing it.”
Agarwal also lamented: “Only a select few, who largely due to pre-existing solidarities or connections, use their college experience to initiate or pursue pathways towards greater impact for the good, and that is the problem.”
For those who choose not to engage, Pang shared that “it isn’t fine, but it’s your life. If you are fortunate and privileged enough to have these experiences, then the onus is really on you to engage. I think that’s luck. And it’s a privilege.”
Are there any silver linings?
In Shehryar’s opinion, the Yale-NUS community is coming up with solutions. They felt that our student organizations do fantastic work.
“However, we all have a part to play in being engaged in issues of diversity and inclusion,” said Shehryar. It doesn’t require “unrealistic, grandiose acts trying to spearhead reform” but rather “helping out in small ways.”
“If there is a survey, fill that out. If there is an open call for ideas, share them. Respond to those surveys; they’re terrible, but data matters. Send an email, a text, or show up for focus groups. That’s all it means.”
For Pang, the silver lining lies with our community’s thriving social impact scene. She posited that potential applicants to Yale-NUS even sought out this community because “they want to be around other like-minded young people, who are genuinely doing impactful things and inspiring peers around them.”
“While Yale-NUS is very small, it has a diverse array of subgroups with different priorities and interests. This diaspora is nurtured and supported by faculty, staff and student groups to create a very encouraging environment for advocacy and engagement in issues,” said Pang.
Among the several different colleges that Dr. Stanfield has worked at, he ranks Yale-NUS at the top for diversity. “Especially in terms of the number of students that I hear from regularly that really care about diversity, equity and inclusion, across a variety of fronts,” he said.
Pang further reflected that “despite all the gripes I have, I am very, very happy to be here.” She found it particularly amazing that “we can see people changed by their experiences here,” especially through “the people you meet on campus, and the things you go through during your four years on campus.”
If I had to sum up the nuances surrounding diversity and apathy in this article, the best way I could do so would be through an analogy that we are all familiar with—dining hall food.
For some people, the current spread of dining hall food is great. They enjoy the available options and do not feel the need to do anything about it. For others, it is detestable and they would rather buy from outside to supplement their diet.
For some of us, we tend to be more picky with our food. When it’s your favorite food, you wipe everything out. If it isn’t up to standard, the food is barely touched. Certain foods tend to be more popular than others. However, we only have one plate. We can only handle so much food before it gets overwhelming. Sometimes even if you want a full meal, you might not have the time to properly digest it.
We each approach dining hall food, or diversity issues, with unique preferences and tastes that either push or pull us away from the various issues on offer at the table. After speaking, both off and on the record, with many diverse individuals for this article, I am left with even more questions. However, my hope for this article is to create a starting point to evaluate the nuances and views expressed here, both in myself and hopefully for you as well!